The idea and the preparation
I was born and brought up in the sleepy hill station of Aizawl, which is the capital city of Mizoram, a small state in North Eastern part of India so it’s not a surprise that mountains have a special place in my heart. A strange kind of unconditional love, a strong pull, that brings me to the mountains time and again. And of all of the mountains I have seen, nothing beats the sheer beauty of the great Himalayas. I feel growing up has its own disadvantages, you simply become too busy to do things you love (at least to most of us). For me, my love is and always will be mountains, so I make it a point to do at least one Himalayan Trek every year.
So, last year when I was deciding on which trek to go for, considering my schedule, season and difficulty level, I came across an adventure company’s website advertising for Mt. Stok Kangri Expedition. I did some research online to understand what it is all about. I came to know that Mt.Stok Kangri is the highest mountain in the Himalayan Stok Range in Ladakh Region. It is located the Hemis National Park about 15KM from Leh. It is also considered by many as the highest trekkable summit in India (6153m).I liked the idea as I felt it was definitely going to be a different sort of high altitude trekking experience. Once I decided to go for it, I found out more facts about this trek. One thing everyone mentioned was the altitude. Anything above 5000m is little uncomfortable for amateur trekkers and one should be warry of it and prepare well in advance. I trained regularly and gained my fitness. I also started increasing my daily water intake gradually a few weeks before the trek. I was really excited before the trek and planned everything to the last details.
Bangalore to Leh
We took a flight to Delhi and as expected the July heat welcomed us. After beating the Delhi summer heat till evening we got into a bus to Manali and slept most of the way. We reached Manali in the morning. Our friend Rajendra had already made arrangements for a nice home stay on top of a hill in the out skirts of Manali. The hotel had a beautiful view from the balcony. Our travel from Manali to Leh was planned the next day so we used this day for some sightseeing in and around Manali, with a special mention to a dip in a natural hot spring at Vashist. It was an amazing feeling to be soaked in hot Sulphur rich water.
Manali - Leh highway is considered to be one of the most unpredictable and dangerous highways in the world. It boasts of some of the highest motor able passes in the world and not to mention freezing cold temperature. In fact half of the year this highway is closed and it’s only through air that Leh is connected to rest of India during the winter months.
On the way to Leh ( Manali – Leh Highway)
Tanglangla Pass (Manali- Leh Highway)
The journey, as expected, was one of the most gruesome I have ever underwent. As we gained altitude different symptoms of attitude sickness started hitting the team hard. At one point of the journey, somewhere 300 KMs away from Leh, there was a huge traffic jam. We soon came to know that there was a truck (carrying kerosene) that laid across the road stopping anything from crossing.
We waited for 7 hours in the freezing cold before some army recovery vans came and made way for us. That night we decided to spend in one of the army transit camps. I came to know that this was one of the highest army camps in the world. High altitude also meant that some of my team members started having severe headache, nausea, fever, body pain etc. I have to admit, I really had second thoughts about the success of the expedition. But next morning brought all of the most needed hope. The same valley which looked so unforgiving the previous night looked mesmerizing in the morning. Words can’t describe the beauty I witnessed that moment. We were surprisingly up and looking forward to reaching Leh.
By afternoon we were welcomed by the huge dragon gates of Leh. It was a strange town with people from all parts of the world. It was a very colourful congregation of different people and cultures. After a brief rest and a diet lunch and a much needed shower we set out to for a site seeing of the tiny yet vibrant town. We soon realized that we were all breathing hard due to low oxygen levels at this altitude. (Leh sits 3500m above sea level).
Thus it was an indication that we need to acclimatize and that too pretty soon. Ignoring all discomforts we went around the town and climbed to the Leh Palace.The view of Leh city from the palace was simply breath taking.We also managed to hire some mountain gear like snow boots, crampons, ice axe, ropes etc. After a good night sleep we set out for our trek to Mt. Stok Kangri base camp.
Leh Palace from Leh town
View of Leh from Leh Palace
View of Mt.Stok Kangri from Leh Palace
Spituk to Zingchen
We started our trek from Spituk along an old jeep road into a parched and exposed region. After a few hours of walking, we entered the lush Zingchen Valley where the Rumbak River flows into the mighty Indus which makes it way down a mightycanyon. Further into the valley lied our campsite, in the two-house hamlet of Zingchen (meaning ‘big field’). One of our team member felt really sick and had to be evacuated to Leh. The altitude got better of him I guess. That evening we all were pretty upset. After a brief meeting and dinner we all cuddled in our sleeping bags, our bed cum blanket for the next 10 days tents being our mobile house.
Starting off our trek
Rugged terrain near Zingchen
Crossing one of the streams on the way to Zingchen
Zingchen to Rumbak
Next day without much delay we started for camp 2(Rumbak).After a short walk we enter Hemis National Park, home to some of the rare Himalayan wildlife such as Snow Leopard, Blue Sheep, Ladakhi Urial (a type of goat), great Tibetan sheep (Arghali), red fox, Tibetan wolf, wild dog (dhole), Lynx, marmot and mountain hare. The trail follows the Rumbak stream ascending gradually towards the village of Rumbak. Just before reaching our campsite at Rumbak (4000m), we stopped at a teahouse run by women from the village. Rumbak is known as a place to see and do research on the magnificent Himalayan snow leopard.
Grass land near Rumbak
View from Rumbak
Sunset at Rumbak
Rumbak to Mankarmo via Stok La
The trail up to the base of Stok La 4900 m starts fairly gradual but becomes steeper as we approach the pass. From the pass, we descend along the mountainside up and down until we reach some stone houses, use by the Stok villagers for summer pasture.
Our campsite at Mankarmo (4200m) is also a first camp for the Stok Kangri approach. The rest of the day will be spent viewing the magnificent Stok Kangri.
Stok La (4900m)
Team on top of Stok La
On the way to Stok La
Mankarmo to Base camp 5000m
We will gradually climb higher into a desolate wasteland, inhabited only by hardy marmots, blue sheep and their predators: wolf and snow leopard. At an altitude of 5000m, we will prepare ourselves for the high camp, and summit. The Base camp was a weird little place with climbers and mountaineering enthusiast from all over the world have set up their respective camp. There were teams from Germany, the UK, the USA, Switzerland, and Austria. We were the second team from India. It was a great atmosphere out there. We congratulated each other on reaching the base camp safe and in one piece. For most of us it was already a feat well achieved. We were scheduled to acclimatize in base camp for the next couple of days before we climb the
summit. We spent these two days checking our gears, meeting more climbers and making short treks around the base camp. Not to mention it was freezing cold up there but by now we were getting used to this climate and excited about our summit accent.
Stok Kangri Base Camp(5000m)
Playing cards at Base Camp
Preparation for summit @ Base Camp
Base Camp was simply out of the world. It was painted white with snow with some amazing views of nearby peaks. Everything was frozen, even the drinking water was getting frozen and we kept on heating it up. This was a day to load our body with food and fluids. We also had some training sessions in the morning to keep our bodies in top fitness levels. We followed strict schedules for eating, drinking fluids and resting.
We went to bed early in the afternoon to get some rest before we start our assent at midnight. It is when the sky is clearer, it is coldest and the snow is more firm to walk on. We planned to carry only a lunch bag and a cup of tea with us as we walk into the
dark night, the trail lit only by our torches.
Checking for essential gears before the final push
All geared up
Summit attempt to Mt.Stok Kangri
We started well and reached the glacier zone but we realized that we were little behind schedule. After a brief team meeting we decided that only five of us including the mountain guide would attempt the summit. The rest were advised to return to base camp. It was a tough call but everyone had to comply with the team leader’s request as it involved safety of the team. I looked around, it was around 4:30 AM, and the sun was just rising. Within a few minutes everything around me - the sky, the mountain and the clouds turned red. It was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my life.
It was simply magical, no words can describe. My hands were painfully frozen so I could not take out my camera and capture this moment. Well I captured it in my mind though, forever. Even now I can close my eyes and see this beauty of nature in my mind.
On the glacier
Another View of the glacier
The path on the glacier was very difficult. We had to fix up crampons below our shoes to walk on snow. It was a long climb, a very long one. As we went up higher and higher, the oxygen levels were dropping. After climbing for almost 5 hours in glacier with a gradient of more than 80 degrees, we finally reached the ridge to our relief. We decided to rest for a few minutes and then walk on the ridge to reach the summit. Walking on the ridge was a different challenge. There was heavy wind blowing over us, the rocks were sharp and loose, one wrong step and anyone of us could have fallen thousands of meters below. We were extra careful and tied each other in a line with a rope. After another 2 hours of slow and exhausting climb we reached the summit
(6123m).It was a magnificent view of the Himalayas from the top, worthy of all the pain we took on the way. We could even see the mighty K2 in the Karakoram Range (in Pakistan). We took snaps of individuals and in groups. To foster good fortune, we offered our prayers on the top.
On top of Stok Kangri (6153m)
Even though we were ecstatic, all of us knew of the delayed summit climb. The snow had indeed melted a lot and it was again going to be a daunting task to climb down to the base camp. I believe, the only factor on our favor was the feeling that we had summited successfully. After another 5 hours of climb crossing over dangerous crevasses and frozen lakes (crevasses were opened up due to melting snow) we finally reached the base camp. To our surprise the whole of base camp welcomed us back. We shook hands with other teams and also told our story to the climbers who were yet to attempt this magnificent feat. We had a grand party that night- my highest party, to celebrate the success.
Climbing down was tricky
Day 8: Base camp – Stok (4-5 hours)
Next morning when we open your eyes, we realized that we had indeed scaled a peak
higher than any mountain in Europe! After breakfast we walk down to Stok village
where a jeep took us back to Leh. This trip had indeed changed me as a person. Besides many other lessons of life, it taught me one very important thing - WITH PAIN COMES STRENGTH.